After three weeks of kicking around southern India as one of four backpackers, Ive gotten used to the place. It would be a stretch to say that India has cast its spell on me, but I have learned to see less of the trash and hassles, and to focus more on the colorful people, towering Hindu temples and lush scenery in this land of one billion souls.
So, here are some impressions of India from your humble correspondent after 1,000 miles on the road:
Did you know that many Hindus celebrate Christmas? Its because they have 333 million gods in their religion, so its a cinch to add Jesus, Virgin Mary and Santa Claus to the mix as an excuse to celebrate.
Part of the fun of traveling rough is we ride the third-class sleeper trains. There are six hard bunks piled three-high in a compartment the size of a mini-van. You jam in all your gear and sit on a bunk, sharing with the Indian family across from you.
Also a hoot are the dusty, junky, clunker buses that seem to be held together with chicken wire. Most of these were considered wrecks 20 years ago when cities in Europe passed on their cast-offs to India. On yesterdays ride, the drivers spring-popping seat was held together with twine. He stayed alert by chewing a mild narcotic known as khat, mixed with fresh tobacco leaf. A bonus was the DVD film in the Hindi language, screeching at top volume through blown speakers on the bus TV.
The worst way to travel is by private car, doing the Dance of Death on the Highways of Hell. We whipsaw in and out of traffic, passing straight into the path of oncoming cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes, with all doing the same. This means thousands of near-misses on every drive. My sphincter is tied in a knot and my toes are permanently curled in fright...
Youve got friends everywhere in India. Walk down any street and youll hear these words, repeated in a mournful monotone:
Hullo. Hullo my fren. Come see my shop, my fren. Jus loook, no buy. Jus loook, my fren.
Indian hustlers all believe that tourists are automatic shopping robots. Theyre right of course, but one can only buy so many statues of Shiva or ankle bracelets. My only consolation is knowing that its far worse in the tourist bubble of Rajasthan in northern India, which is said to be a perfect hell of hassle.
Strange, but true: 85% of all marriages in India are still arranged by your parents.
While having dinner at a local guides home in Mysore, he proudly told us of his daughters recent marriage. It seems that he had heard through the grapevine that a rich mans son needed a wife. He put his daughter forward -- a lovely girl -- and she was interviewed by the young mans parents. Then, he and his wife met the prospective groom.
Finally, the young couple got to meet -- IN PERSON! -- in his dining room, with both sets of parents looking on. They even got to talk for an hour alone to see if they were a match.
Then, with a flourish of his hand, the young man said, Ill take her! and the deal was done.
Ah, but first, the girls father had to come up with 800,000 rupees as a dowry -- thats $20,000 U.S. to us, but more like half a million bucks to a lower middle class family in India. No problem -- he simply called his relatives all over the world and told them of the golden opportunity his daughter had to marry a rich mans son. The money flowed in.
The wedding included 4,500 guests -- not unusual in India where even middlin folks invite 2,000 or so. The newlyweds went to live at his mamma and daddys house, as all Indian couples do, to get to know the perfect stranger theyll be spending the rest of their lives with.
As for the dowry, the grooms parents keep the cash, and the bride keeps the gold jewelry just in case things dont work out. A married woman who doesnt wear heaps of gold jewelry is laughed at on the streets of India.
But what of the wedding night, you say? No worries -- all Hindu temples are carved with at least some of the 184 sexual positions of the Kama Sutra (literally, sex techniques). This is so all teenage boys and girls will know how to enjoy their love-lives when they marry.
The Hindus dont have our uptight Calvinist/Puritan tradition which teaches that sex is dirty. They consider sex to be a gift from God and want to make sure their kids are doing it right. Imagine this graphic sex guide on the walls of your local church.
On the other hand, the people of India are incredible prudes: both dating and premarital sex are unheard of, and even kissing is taboo in the syrupy, romantic films of Bollywood. How this squares with the kinky temple carvings, I havent a clue.
Its great to be able to watch Jay Leno and The Tonight Show on TV in India, providing you dont mind seeing the shows from 2003. I caught an interview with Britney Spears in which she had just broken up with Justin Timberlake and was on top of the world.
You never know when youll meet an elephant in India. There are many out in the country, but Ive also met several on the city streets and inside a Hindu temple that was the size of a baseball stadium.
Ive been thrilled each time -- actually, more like electrified -- these huge creatures have eyes which shine with intelligence and theyre as friendly as pet dogs.
In downtown Pondicherry, one gave me a blessing outside the Temple of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of good luck. His body was painted with sacred markings and the smell of incense filled the air. I placed a rupee coin in the nostrils of its rough, hairy trunk and bowed as it stroked my head for good luck.
That blessing is working so far, except for my tendency to explode from both ends at times, if you know what I mean. Our band of backpackers all came down with cases of projectile vomiting from different bugs than were used to in the food and water. Its not much fun being sick, combined with the constant heat, crowds, traffic, pollution, grime and hassles of traveling in India, I assure you.
Speaking of which, if you want to get the people of India in stitches (or gagging) at a restaurant, then go ahead and eat your food with your left hand. This of course, is the bathroom hand in Asia, where they swab the lower deck with a splash of water and scrub with their fingers.
Many people eat with their fingers here, which involves rolling a gooey ball of rice, dripping with curry sauce and chunks of fish, chicken or eggplant, and popping it in your mouth. ALWAYS with the right hand, of course.
After two-and-a-half months of constant travel on my way around the world, Im looking forward to kicking back in Goa, the beach party capital of this half of the planet, where thousands of kids from Europe and Australia flock for all-night raves, rubbing elbows with their jet-setting parents. Will let you know how it goes... Namaste.